Madison Avenue. Cigarettes. Perfectly coiffed hair. Marilyn Monroe curves in pencil skirts. Grace Kelly lookalike on the arm of a devastatingly handsome man in a gray suit. This is the world of Mad Men, AMC’s wildly successful drama set place in a 1960s ad agency. During its first three seasons, characters navigate a corporate, traditional world—full of seemingly invisible rules and a startling emphasis on propriety. It’s a world still firmly set in 1950s decorum even as the decade has changed. During the fourth season however, the old-world system begins to weaken. In the episode “The Rejected,” set in 1965, one character’s longing to differentiate herself from tradition comes onto center stage.
Peggy Olsen, a budding copywriter, has always been one of the youngest and most progressive women at work. As the only female agency copywriter, she prioritizes her career above settling down and is frequently praised for her progressive perspective. Meanwhile, most of her coworkers are middle-aged men in corporate gray suits. It is no surprise then, that when Peggy meets Joyce, a bold photo assistant from Life magazine, she is drawn to Joyce’s ties to the counterculture. On their first encounter, Joyce shows Peggy nude photographs that had just been rejected from Life (which would’ve been considered appalling by any established publication in the 1960s). Peggy is shocked, but warms up to the photographs once Joyce exclaims that she doesn’t understand why anyone would “hate nudes.”
During this first meeting, Joyce and Peggy’s differences are clear and highlighted by their clothing. In “The Language of Personal Adornment” Mary Ellen Roach and Joanne Bubolz Eicher notes: “All aesthetic acts [like dressing oneself] are acts of speaking” (109). Joyce is dressed in a menswear suit—very unusual for this time period when appropriate office wear for women were limited to only dresses and skirts, while Peggy is dressed in a traditional pussybow blouse and skirt, with a 1950s style coat complete with a hat. Joyce’s outfit proclaims her differences while Peggy’s fits in perfectly in her rather conservative ad agency. However, later on in the episode, when Joyce invites Peggy to a downtown loft party, Peggy shows up in clothing we’ve never seen her wear in her four seasons on the show: a casual, striped turtleneck, corduroy drawstring skirt, and knee socks. Aesthetically, she fits in perfectly at the party: the other guests are wearing variations of the same turtleneck top and her outfit wins Joyce’s approval.
However, though Peggy fits the bill of counterculture girl on the surface, it soon becomes apparent that she does not belong at the party. When a journalist (who was recently jailed for covering a boycott in Harlem) asks if she writes on the side when not working at the ad agency, she proudly states that copywriting is writing. She is met with puzzled looks. Joyce and her friends assumed Peggy’s job in mainstream media was merely a way to pay rent so she can practice her true art on the side—and are shocked that the dissemination of mainstream ideas is something Peggy enjoys. Peggy remains oblivious to this distinction, however, and proceeds to persuade the underground photographer of the aforementioned nudes to work for her agency. He is immensely offended, as he sees no “art” in advertising: and believes that working mainstream media is the equivalent of selling his soul and turning his back on his counterculture beliefs.
The subterranean values of “risk” and “excitement” which Dick Hebdige notes in Subculture: The Meaning of Style are “embedded in youth culture” is what attracts Peggy to the counterculture (76). Joyce and her friends exhibit an unattainable cool, provocative vibe. They shoot and pose for nude photographs, smoke marijuana, and host parties so against the mainstream grain that they end up being busted by the police. Aesthetically, Peggy can adopt counterculture style as easily as she wants. She can even smoke a joint with Joyce at the party. But she remains completely ignorant of the ideology behind the counterculture she so yearns to be a part of. They are rebelling against the dominant order. In the 1950s and 1960s especially, “Access to the means by which ideas are disseminated in our society (ie: principally the mass media) [was] not the same for all classes. Some groups [had] more say, more opportunity to make the rules, to organize meaning, while others [were] less favorably placed, [had] less power to produce and impose their definitions of the world on the world” (Hebdige, 150). Peggy not only works for the mass media—the very ruling class the counterculture is rebelling against—but she sees nothing wrong with enjoying her job. On an ideological level, she is the enemy yet she’s so ignorant of counterculture ideology and she doesn’t notice in the first place and thus, would never understand why.
Racism, classism, sexism and countless other categories of discrimination were prevalent in 1965 and for the counterculture, their “youth cultural styles [were] symbolic forms of resistance” (Hebdige, 80). They were “challenging at a symbolic level the ‘inevitability’, the ‘naturalness’ of class and gender stereotypes” (Hebdige, 89). Joyce’s friends wear turtlenecks as a way of signifying their disgust with mainstream culture for making classism and sexism the norm. They are proclaiming their loyalty to counterculture and social and political change. While for Peggy, who’s completely stripped counterculture style of its symbolism, a turtleneck is just a way to fit in with the cool kids. Ironically, by the end of the episode, Peggy is now with the spirited, rebellious counterculture crowd, but (in an episode set a year after the release of the Feminine Mystique and a week after Malcom X’s murder) doesn’t understand what anyone is rebelling against.
Peggy’s appropriation of counterculture style and ignorance of its political undertones reflect the modern audience’s own relationship with Mad Men. Mad Men has been praised for being extremely historically accurate and creator Matthew Weiner has given numerous interviews about the amount of research and effort put into small stylistic details, but the show never delves into the deeper social and political issues of the 1960s. Recurring black characters rotate around an all white, upper middle class cast. Female leads—the most progressive one being Peggy—are never shown in trying to gain political strides for their gender. The turmoil of the 1960s is sidelined by the soap opera drama of the central cast: who glide around hotels in ball gowns, take drags of cigarettes in gold holders at bars, expertly apply red lipstick in powder rooms, and unbutton tuxedo jackets in five-star restaurants. Daniel Mendelsohn notes in “The Mad Men Account” that “in its glossy, semaphoric style, its tendency to invoke rather than unravel this or that issue, the way it uses a certain visual allure to blind rather than to enlighten, Mad Men is much like a successful advertisement itself.” The show glazes over the issues of the 1960s and instead, focuses on its glamour. It seeks to attract our eye for beauty—and once it has, does not seek to provoke further thought into the era’s deeper issues. We’re not fascinated with Mad Men because it’s a documentary of decades past. We love it because of its style.
Since its release in 2007, Mad Men has inspired various designer runway shows, a Banana Republic clothing line, and even a line of nail polish. It effectively brought 1950s and 1960s style back in what Angela Mcrobbie, author of Postmodernism and Popular Culture would call a “vogue of nostalgia” (135). The recent popularity of long pencil skirts, shift dresses, full skirts, pussybow blouses, cardigans, costume jewelry and updos, etc. is a result of Mad Men. Our modern society is so fascinated with the portrayed glamour of the Mad Men era that we’ve appropriated their style. Our Mad Men inspired pieces are reproductions of a reproduction of true 1960s style. Aesthetically similar, but symbolically removed. Take full skirts for example, which were seen in the early 1960s as one of the only appropriate pieces women could wear. Pants were not an option. Pencil skirts were limited to the office. Full skirts were the staples of housewives—who had no other choices. It was a symbol of a brand of femininity that is now antiquated and sexist to us. Yet the average modern woman does not wear her Banana Republic Mad Men full skirt to proclaim to the world that she’s a housewife (and not by choice). She wears it because it’s pretty, because she likes the show, and because she’s nostalgic of the vintage style but not of vintage values.
The modern Mad Men fan may not notice anything wrong with Peggy’s ignorance of counterculture ideology while she rocking a striped turtleneck at a loft party, because as viewers, we are at fault for doing the same thing. Our obsession with the aesthetic glamour of decades past has fueled our attempts to revitalize the era’s distinctive style. It’s a style that was once so symbolic of 1950s-60s attitudes and cultural norms—of political turmoil and grave social injustices. Through Mad Men and the fashion industry’s subsequent reproductions, we’ve divorced this style of its original symbolism. Just as Peggy’s ignorance strips the counterculture of its belief system, we’ve appropriated, re-appropriated, and trivialized a decade of social and political turmoil down to red lipstick, cufflinks, and full skirts. But hey, that skirt does look really good on you.
Hebdige, Dick. Subculture, the Meaning of Style. New York: Routledge, 1998. Print.
McRobbie, Angela. “Second-Hand Dresses and the Role of the Rag Market” Postmodernism and Popular Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994. 135-154. Print.
Mendelsohn, Daniel. “The Mad Men Account.” The Mad Men Account by Daniel Mendelsohn. The New York Review of Books, 24 Feb. 2011. Web. 12 Mar. 2015.
Roach, Mary Ellen, and Joanne Bubolz Eicher. “The Language of Personal Adornment.” Fashion Theory: A Reader. Ed. Malcolm Barnard. New York: Routledge, 2007. 109-20. Print.
“The Rejected.” Mad Men. Writ. Keith Huff and Matthew Weiner. Dir. John Slattery. AMC, 2010. Netflix.